Like many during election season who live in safe states like New York, Gita Drury has focused on the swing states for the coming elections. In the past, her organization, the Active Element Foundation, raised money for grassroots youth groups nationwide to raise young voter participation. But because Active Element is a non-profit organization, the groups it works with are barred from anything that might smell of political advocacy. Wanting to get more directly involved, Gita took a leave from her job to work with Active Elements sister organization, The League of Pissed Off Voters. Because the League has a more politically flexible 501(c)4 tax status, it is allowed to do unlimited lobbying. It also has an affiliated PAC (Political Action Committee), which allows it to make endorsements and actually help elect candidates at all levels – local, state and federal.
The Leagues mission is to re-engage pissed off young people who are turned off by traditional, big-money electoral politics. Some of their recent projects include the book "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office," the online network Indyvoter.org, and the Progressive Voter Guide Tool. They are allied with youth groups that are ferocious, engaged and outside the mainstream – they include the National Hip Hop Political Convention, PunkVoter, Next Wave of Women in Power, United Students Against Sweatshops and Voter Virgin.
With one month left to the elections, Gita and the rest of the League are in hyper-drive mode, criss-crossing the country and reaching out to young people who are "pissed off " at the political situation but not necessarily motivated to vote. In the midst of her busy schedule, she took a break to talk about the League's strategy, why voters are pissed off and why voter organizing is sometimes more effective than protest.
Gita, let's start with a conversation we had the night before the Republican National Convention (RNC). At that time, you said that the enormous energy being focused on protesting Bush's presence could distract from voter registration work. Expand on that theme a bit. Do you feel it distracts from the less sexy, but equally vital work of voter registration? When is protest relevant and when is it a distraction?
I dont like the whole "protesting versus voting" debate. Thats how we end up fighting amongst ourselves over tactics. What we really need is both! I actually think the RNC protests were really important and inspiring. They didnt end up taking that many material resources, mostly people power. However, my point was that this particular presidential election could easily be decided by a few thousand votes, in states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. I give the organizers a lot of credit for being politically smart by keeping everything non-violent and not playing into the hands of Karl Rove. I would like to see our community put just as much energy into beating the Republicans as protesting them. Its not enough to protest – we have to get them out of power.
IndyVoter targets youth and minority communities, as well as others. Do you feel black & Latino communities are totally ignored by Democrats because they presume they have their vote? Has the Kerry campaign been better on this, or about the same? I understand that there was some talk about some hip hop heads talking to the GOP after being ignored by the Dems. What's going on with race and the Dems?
Yeah, its a real problem. Democrats have been taking people of color, young people, queer people for granted and/or ignoring them.
But I think we are also sometimes naïve about the complex line the Democrats have to walk to get elected, given the realities of America. The Republican strategy to peel off the white working and middle class has been to portray the Democratic party as being controlled by special interests, i.e. African Americans, corrupt union bosses, "tree-huggers," "man-hating feminists," gays, etc. The Republicans have an incredible propaganda machine that plays on the racist fears of the white majority, particularly men, to get them to vote against their own class interests.
In 1988, the Republicans destroyed Michael Dukakis by portraying him as soft of crime. The centerpiece of this strategy was a black prisoner who had committed a crime while he was on furlough. This was the infamous Willie Horton ad that pulled the rug out from under Dukakis. So, in 1992 Clinton won by portraying himself as tough on crime and by intentionally distancing himself from Jesse Jackson and scapegoating Sister Souljah. And he won. Ever since, white Democrats feel like they have to distance themselves from minority communities in order to win at the national level, or in any majority white district in most places in the country.
So this is the reality that were dealing with. This is how the right wing has taken the South, using these racist tactics. Democrats are stuck between a rock and a hard place on race. Kerry could be better, but hes actually not as bad as hes portrayed. He has spoken out against the rise of the prison industrial complex.
Lets be clear: this isnt about us trusting Kerry or the Democratic party to save us or to be good on race, which I wont be holding my breath for. This is about us organizing in the long term for when people of color are the majority in this country.
If we do our job, politicians in all parties will have no choice but to take constituents of color seriously. Having said that, most white Democrats have a long way to go on race and if they dont get it, they are going to lose and keep losing because theyre undermining their own foundation.
Let's talk about IndyVoter's specific work. What have you guys been up to? What is the focus in these final weeks? What tactics worked? What needs improvement?
The League is actually a family of organizations the League of Young Voters Education Fund, the League of Independent Voters and League of Independent Voters PAC. Obviously, each arm has a distinct role in the overall strategy of the League.
League of Young Voters trains community based organizations in effective voter organizing, since grassroots groups are often new to electoral politics. We have an incredible training director, Adrienne Brown, who travels all over the country providing the tools and resources, and training other people, to effectively engage young people.
We just launched our friend-of-a-friend network on IndyVoter.org. Pissed off kids are getting on it by the thousands and creating their own local progressive voter guides and voter blocs. Its very cool! Everyone is going to be using it. The fact is, no one knows who the hell the candidates are besides the president and maybe a few others. We have more than 70 local League groups that are now making their own progressive voter guides – mostly in swing states. Then theyre going to turn out their social networks. Its amazing. Theres never been anything like it before.
You also co-founded an organization called "Making Money Make Change," (MMMC) an annual gathering for young people with wealth to learn about philanthropy. An interesting concept – did it work? Do wealthy people have social consciences? George Soros certainly seems to have one. Is he an anomaly or a pattern for the future?
It worked very well actually! Its been a successful conference – this month the 7th annual MMMC will take place in Connecticut, bringing together 75 young people ranging in age from 15 to 35. Yes, some wealthy people do have social consciences. I know when I was 22, I found the contradictions in my own life confusing at times. This network of people offered support and inspiration for much of the work Ive been involved with since the first MMMC in 1998.
George Soros is definitely not an anomaly, but rather part of a long tradition of people leveraging their resources toward social change. Of course, there is also a tradition of philanthropy that is about perpetuating the status quo and power structure – and that tradition has historically had a lot more zeros behind it. But there is a growing movement of young people who are nothing like the subjects of Jamie Johnsons film, "Born Rich." Unlike the people in that film, these people see the importance of a sustainable and just future and are willing to play an active role in changing things NOW!
One great example is Karen Pittelman. When Karen inherited money from her family, she started a foundation to fund grassroots women organizers, known as the Chahara Foundation. Karen opted not to serve on the board of Chahara as she believes all the decisions should be made by low-income organizers and women of color, the same demographics as the women receiving grants. Karen went on to work at Resource Generation, an organization solely created to support young progressive people with wealth – she has been an important leader in that community.
There are many other inspiring stories I could share, but one of the major issues that come up in this community is anonymity. Around half of the people who attend the conference are not "out" in the rest of their lives about their wealth.
What about Critical Resistance, another group you co-founded. Why does the prison industrial complex keep growing? What do we do about the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black men? What can we do about the nation's laws that prevent felons from voting?
It was an honor to be a part of the group in 1998 that pulled together the original conference. My role has been small since then due to my other commitments. I was just a young kid who had done an internship that brought me into womens prisons. I got really angry when I learned first-hand that most women are in prison for non-violent crimes and most of them have kids on the outside. The prison movement has ballooned astronomically – people should check out Criticalresistance.org and Righttovote.org to get more information about this.
The prison industrial complex continues to grow because of the fear epidemic that is rampant in this country that has been well coordinated with the privatization (and thus profit-making) of the incarceration of human beings. As I mentioned before, the Democratic party tried to present themselves as tough on crime which often meant going along with Republicans on things like mandatory minimum sentences and draconian drug laws. All of these things have an incredibly negative effect on young people of color, who are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by our justice system.
There are a lot of youth groups in your coalition that the "grown-up" political parties have no clue about. Hip hoppers, punks and voter virgins. What do they want? Are there common threads or major differences? The Village Voice did a series of articles on college loan debt. Is that the beginning of new issues for youth, just like Medicare is an issue for the grey vote?
First, I want to clarify thats its not exactly an official "coalition." Its more like a bunch of loose networks. Second, what we want is basic: affordable education, housing, rehabilitation, not building more prisons and bombs. We want a government that listens to us, not big oil companies. We want to be able to go to the doctor, and earn a living wage to support our families. We want to know that theres going to be Social Security for us when we get old. And that were not going to be in debt paying off tax cuts for the rich.
I saw an inspiring performance a few weeks back at the Apollo Theater by We Got Issues: Raising the Voice of a New Feminine Generation, a project of the Next Wave of Women & Power. This dynamic group of women artists and performers put out a national call for young women to send them rants, describing their relationship to voting. The goal was to have young womens voicesheard. The rants were then made into a performance piece, with Eve Ensler and Jane Fonda as executive producers. Projects like We Got Issues, PunkVoter, Voter Virgins, etc. are great examples of the innovation and creativity that the extreme nature of the current political climate has inadvertently fostered among young people.
Of course with youth groups, everything is on the Internet. So to learn more about these groups, check out these URLs: hihopconvention.org, votervirgin.com, punkvoter.org, musicforamerica.org, swingstatesummerbreak.org, and bikefordemocracy.org
What's your prognosis for America? How do we get out of where we are into a more just and equitable society? Is it just elections, or is there more to be done?
Prognosis? Thats a tough question
I believe Nov. 2 is the crucial watershed election.
Either we are going to go spiraling into a nosedive where radical right-wing fanatics control all branches of government with no effective opposition, or, in the best case scenario, were able to live to fight another day. Meaning, Kerry helps us get the termites out of the foundation of the house, and at least buys us time to take our movement to the next level.
Ultimately, in '06 and '08 and in the coming decades, as people of color become a majority and our movement grows stronger, we will be able to take our country back – school board by school board, state rep by state rep, precinct by precinct. Our goal is to build a coherent vision and strategy towards a future that is sustainable in its respect toward the all forms of life on the planet.
By Tuesday, many New Yorkers were exhausted by the pace of recent events. Although the largest anti-RNC protest was on Sunday, marches, direct action and events kept going on throughout the week. Seeking a break from the hectic pace on the streets, I attended the Planned Parenthood "Stand Up For Choice" concert at the Beacon Theater on Monday night – part of the Imagine Festival – which promised entertainment from Moby, Nellie McKay, comedian Lewis Black, and more. But even as I filed into the theater filled with a well-dressed audience, reports came in via text message that police had run motorcycles into protesters at a downtown rally. Two forms of dissent – genteel concert and street action – co-existed uncomfortably this evening.
Outside the Beacon Theater's star-studded marquee, a small group of pro-life protesters were gathered inside a police pen, holding up "Abortion is Genocide" signs. But the forlorn group was completely ignored by the media. Instead, CNBC, AP and the other reporters were gathered behind a velvet rope (which seemed more pretension than function), catching brief interviews with arriving celebs like Kathleen Turner.
I bypassed the celebrity angle and went over to the pro-life group. The group's leader, Chris Slattery, described himself as a "lifelong Republican from New York." He said, "We're outraged by the absolute khutzpah these celebrities have, coming here to New York to corrupt the Republican Party, which is the last bastion of hope for America, standing up for the unborn. This crowd has lock stock and barrel corrupted the Democrat party. But they're not content, they want the Republicans too."
Preaching to the Converted
But was the event actually going to corrupt the Republicans? Although the evening was organized by Planned Parenthood of New York and New Jersey, the event's co-sponsor was Planned Parenthood Republicans for Choice. The website for the event urges the Republican Party to "return to its traditional path of individual responsibility and personal freedom by supporting the right to choose." But after talking to several of the organizers, I was unable to locate any "representative" Republicans. When comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer asked from stage, "Any Republicans here?", there were only a handful of cheers (many more cheered when another comedian announced he was from New Jersey). Most of the artists present made no secret of their sympathies. Actor Michael McKean gleefully announced from stage, "Ann Coulter hates me." And of course, musician Moby is a personal friend and supporter of Kerry. With mostly Democratic party faithful in attendance, the evening seemed to be the sound of one hand clapping – preaching to the thoroughly converted.
Legally, many of these events have to keep a non-partisan stance, especially in light of the recent flap over 527's. But causes such as anti-war protests are automatically presumed to be shills for Democrats (even though Kerry is out of step with many of the anti-war views expressed on New York streets). The position of Republicans For Choice was attacked by Kathryn Jean Lopez, in the rightist National Review (online, Aug 30), where she charged, "NARAL Pro-choice New York has taken out ads expressing its love for pro-abortion Republicans George Pataki, Mike Bloomberg, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, and Rudy Giuliani.... Don't be fooled: The elephant on the march was the Democratic party, as it inevitably is when the abortion industry gathers." Dismissing the popular protest sign "Stand up for choice all week," she called it "Kerry-Edwards signs, held by Kerry-Edwards voters."
Comedian Lewis Black, one of the evening's performers, was surprised when I told him there were pro-life protesters outside. Ushered in through a side entrance, none of the performers had seen the small demonstration. Commenting on the political dialogue, Lewis said, "I think there's way too many people talking to themselves. We need to find people from both sides, who can express themselves, in a way that's understandable to the other side. The only place I've seen that is Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel when they come on these talk shows together. They express their points of views, and they don't scream at each other, and they disagree. So it is possible."
Genteel Upper-West-Side Event
The RNC week events often break down along lines of race, class and generation. On one side are relatively safe, staid concert events at big-ticket venues. In another part of town are grass-roots, edgy and spontaneous street concerts like those by political hip-hoppers No Surrender (who released the "Reagan's Ghost" EP during the RNC) and dub-reggae-punk band Outernational (called "the new Rage Against The Machine"). With its upper-West-Side location, and choice of Beacon Theater as venue, the Planned Parenthood event fell squarely into the staid camp. Compared with the raw energy Outernational demonstrated during their concert at the August 29th mega-protest, the musical acts at the Planned Parenthood show were stage-managed to the point of inertia – neither the stage nor the audience generated the necessary energy to make it more than a "show-and-tell" event. Tellingly, in a city with a forty percent non-white population, there were very few faces of color in either the audience or on stage.
Even Comedy Has Limits
Although the overall event lacked punch, a few bursts of energy were provided by the stand-up comedians, especially the raunchy acts of Suzanne Westenhoefer and Patrice O'Neal. Going after religion with fervor, Westenhoefer was an equal opportunity offender, clowning born-again Christians, the "Rapture," "The Passion Of Christ," Jehovah's Witnesses ("They believe only 144,000 will go to heaven, but they spend their lives going door to door fucking up their lots. If I were a Jehovah's Witness, I'd keep it on the down-low."), and Mormons ("I did gay pride in Salt Lake City. I know we got a lot of other things to worry about, but when we have time, we have to get some people and get some planes and get the queer people out of Salt Lake City. I don't think they understand they're free to go.")
Patrice O'Neal was an odd follow-up to Westenhoefer's lesbian humor, since he started with New Jersey Gov. McGreevey jokes that veered close to homophobia. But once O'Neal moved on to foreign policy, he hit his stride, delighting the audience by loudly announcing, "Foreigners care about everything, we care about nothing. We care about something for five-ten minutes. We're not foreign experts in this country. We don't care about the rest of the globe. That's why they hate us. Because we don't care.... In a few years, 9/11 is going to be some goofy holiday." As if to defy the National Review's allegation that it was a staunchly Democratic event, he even launched some barbs at Kerry, bringing the house down with his signature line: "I'm sorry, every time, John Kerry is on TV with his wife, I can't stop looking at her. I just can't stop looking at her! She owns ketchup! She owns condiments, man. Mayonnaise!"
Even raunch has its limits, and the performers drew the line at making abortion jokes. Kathleen Turner's reading of an Onion spoof headline, "Taco Bell Launches New 'Morning After' Burrito," was an off-key note, given the sensitivity of the topic, but everyone else steered clear. Commenting on this DMZ area in the abortion debate, Lewis Black told me,"When people say, what is off-limits to you for jokes – this is it, this is off-limits. It's such a hot-button issue."
The New York City neighborhood church was filled with veteran protestors and curious first-timers, all interested in finding out more about upcoming protests at the Republican National Convention. The organizers start with a touch of humor: "And to our friends in plainclothes from the New York Police Department, welcome. We have nothing to hide." The few men sporting tucked-in-shirts and buzz-cut hairdos shifted nervously. Shouldn't they pick better disguises? Whatever happened to Serpico? Anyway, this was a meeting to plan peaceful protest – no one seemed worried about the police presence.
The meeting continued for hours, going through the various scenarios – where to march, where the detours may be, the status of the Central Park permit, what radio station to listen to, and where to stock up on drinking water. Finally, the legal observers came on stage – ready to give guidelines in case of any police action.
"First of all," intoned the speaker, "If you're a recent immigrant who is not a naturalized citizen yet, be very careful. Don't get arrested."
"Especially," she added, after a pause for emphasis, "If you look like you're Muslim."
Many Immigrants, Many Visas
Immigrants make up forty percent of New York City's population. Organizers expect that a lot of the city's immigrant population will be supporters, if not active participants, in the anti-RNC protests planned for this coming weekend. But it is these same immigrants who face legal restrictions on their right to engage in peaceful protest.
The status of immigrants can vary widely. Some are here on work or student visas; others have green cards and can apply for citizenship after five years with a green card. However, for certain immigrants the security check (post 9/11) can add several years to this process. All these types of immigrants have the legal right to protest and express political opinions in America – but due to extensive and slow background checks and increased surveillance, these rights are effectively restricted for Muslim immigrants.
Minor Arrests Block Citizenship
If all goes well, the anti-RNC protests will be large, peaceful and orderly. So why should immigrant protesters be worried about trouble? The reality is, as any of us attending protests in the last two years know, you can be arrested even if you don't "make trouble." During last year's controversial February 15 protests in New York against the war in Iraq, the police cordoned off entire city blocks, trapping protesters inside metal barriers. In this situation, even peaceful protestors can be arrested for "refusing to disperse."
Even a minimum charge of Disorderly Conduct is bad news for immigrants. If an immigrant is arrested for any reason, no matter how minor, it will affect his naturalization application. Even if the charges are dropped, the arrest alone is enough to sabotage citizenship. On the Citizenship (Naturalization) application, the applicant must answer the question: "Have you ever been arrested?" The question does not ask for more details – what were you arrested for, were you convicted, etc? Being arrested for any reason, even if it is wrongful arrest, could result in a refusal of citizenship. The applicant could have to wait five years after the arrest to reapply. This could have a chilling effect on immigrants who wish to protest.
The Post-9/11 World
Cutbacks of civil liberties of immigrants have been in effect long before 9/11. New legislation passed by Congress after the Oklahoma bombing (even though the culprits there were not recent immigrants) instituted mandatory detention of immigrants with any criminal convictions, even minor convictions, and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The law also removed judicial review of Immigration judges.
After 9/11, more laws were enacted that affected immigrant rights, legalized by interim policy and regulations passed by the Department Of Justice (and Homeland Security since March 2003). Attorney Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund says, "The reason all this was not done through the Patriot Act is simple. When you pass a law, Congress has to vote on it. If you pass interim regulations, it's much easier. You can do it without any public scrutiny."
Among the interim regulations passed are the following, all of which have had a chilling effect on free speech in immigrant communities:
- Material Witness/Special Interest Cases, under which approximately 5,000 Muslim men were detained and placed in secret detention
- The Absconder Initiative listed individuals with outstanding deportation orders and placed them on the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) list.
- Special registration: Citizens of 25 countries (all majority Muslim, except North Korea) were required to register with the INS. This program has now been suspended in the face of public protest.
- SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System): This tracks all foreign students in US and scrutinizes them for potential terrorist threat.
- Sealed Protective Order: This places gag orders on immigrants in removal proceedings, preventing them from talking to anybody, including the press.
- Voluntary Interviews: These target recent Muslim immigrants, initially conducted by the FBI, and later transferred to local agencies (such as NYPD's newly formed Counter Intelligence or Terrorism Task Force). These interviews were conducted after 9/11, during the initial invasion of Iraq, and again in July in conjunction with the Orange Alert.
- A new requirement that hospitals have to collect information on immigrant status before providing Medicaid, and the expectation that police will now question people on immigrant status.
Of the approximately 5,000 Muslim men who were detained after 9/11, only three were charged with any crime, and only one was indicted. But if the intention was to silence dissent, the dragnet succeeded. Knowing that they can be arrested, interrogated, detained, deported or denied citizenship on the smallest of charges, immigrants are now fearful about participating in public protests, even if it is a protest to defend their own rights.
RNC in the Immigrant City
As the RNC arrives in New York this week, protest organizers will have to protect immigrants, especially Muslims, from harassment and racial profiling. Reports circulated this week that INS officers would accompany the NYPD to arrest locations. Since the NYPD does not have a policy of asking for immigration status, the presence of INS officers allows circumvention of this. One reason groups like NION (Not In Our Name) were pushing for a permit to march in Central Park was to ensure that protesters could march in open, legal spaces.
Activist Aimara Lin's grandparents were among the 100,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated under Executive Order 9066 in 1940. Lin has been actively fighting for Muslim immigrant rights since 9/11. She recently linked the Central Park permit debate to the issue of immigrant protesters: "There are many reasons we pushed for a permit for Central Park, the largest open space in New York City. Immigrants have the right to come out and say what they have had to go through. The denial of the permit is a part of the overall rollback of everybody's rights. I think there are still brave immigrants who will come out even if there is no permit, but there is a clear risk to them. We're doing everything we can to curtail this risk, at this time and in the future."
In spite of the barriers, immigrant rights advocates refuse to be intimidated. American-Muslim civil rights attorney Chaumtoli Huq put it in context: "We should encourage each other to protest. Many immigrants come from countries where they have protested under worse conditions. Practical measures can be taken to ensure that recent immigrants stay clear of police and are paired with a US citizen. My experience with working class immigrant Taxi drivers has always been positive with respect to protest."
Maya Sen is a recent South Asian immigrant and political activist. Although Maya is a legal immigrant on a work visa, she offered a cautious note. "If I was to get arrested, my status will be in jeopardy for sure, and I can't afford that. So it's a catch 22 situation – I want to protest, but the repressive climate will restrict my expression."
The RNC is almost here. Will all New Yorkers be able to come out and peacefully protest? If they do, some will be risking more than just a few nights in jail; some will be risking deportation just to get their voices heard.
Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh, and Antaryami are hardly agents of Neo-Empire. These are desperately poor men who went to Iraq to work for a Kuwaiti company, but ended up as hostages – pawns in the power struggle between the occupation and the insurgency.
Over the past months, the insurgency has lost its ability to claim higher ground, just as the US occupation force has also lost its own legitimacy. The fate of the seven hostages – three Indian, three Kenyan and one Egyptian truck driver – being held by Holders Of The Black Banner in Iraq illustrates a dark truth about the insurgents: These are not heroic rebels fighting the good fight, but ruthless killers willing to target civilians, including poor migrant workers.
Sher Singh, the father of one of the Indian hostages, recently told reporters, With great hopes we had sent our son abroad in April this year by selling a piece of land. Little did we know that we [would] have to face this." His wife Jaspal Kaur added, "What can we do? We are very poor people."
Poverty forces millions of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to work in sub-human conditions in the Middle East and Gulf region, and which has now trapped seven men in a terrifying ordeal.
The Indian hostages remind me of my old Hindu barber in Bangladesh, Himangshu Datta. One day, in the middle of cutting my hair, he calmly informed me that he planned to convert to Islam, at least on paper. It seems being Muslim is sometimes an advantage in unspoken quotas that are part of the tremendous outflow of Bangladeshi migrant workers to Dubai. It is why my barber who hoped to get a job as a driver for a Dubai government office was trying to get a birth certificate with a Muslim name.
When I asked him what he would do about the sensitive issue of circumcision a must for Muslims – he sadly answered, "Listen, I need to make money to send it back to my family in the village. I will do anything." His willingness to abandon his religion to toil in the Middle East under working conditions that a recent Human Rights Watch report described as "near slavery" – spoke volumes about the desperation of migrant workers.
And yet, the flow of migration continues unabated.
TV pundits often talk about fanatical hordes in the Third World, willing to die for religion. But the experience of migrant workers shows that poverty trumps ideology or religion as a driving force for the vast working class of these nations. In this aspect, they have much in common with the American GI's – many of whom come from poor families and who join the army for economic opportunities.
The anti-war movement opposed the U.S. invasion, and true to our predictions, the occupation has turned into a bloody mess and a recruiting ground for fanatics and terrorists. But in opposing the occupation, we also cannot find anything to support among the insurgents. Especially for those of us from majority-Muslim nations, Muqtada Al Sadr or Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi are not heroic guerilla figures. In kidnapping poor migrants and using them to punish the U.S. occupation, they reveal their true inhumanity.
The truth is that in the present crisis in Iraq, there is no "right" side, a condition reflective of our tangled global politics. The only resort in this bloody impasse is the UN. Defanged by the U.S. and hemorrhaging credibility, this rickety institution still offers the best hope for peace in Iraq.
Until then, it is poor people everywhere – in dusty Iraqi towns, desperate Indian villages, and army recruiting centers like Flint, Michigan – who will continue to pay with their lives for this war.
Michael Moore: Oh, well, see, there's not that many Congressmen that've got kids over there, and in fact, only one. So we just thought maybe you guys should send your kids there first. What do you think about that idea? [Michael Moore to Congressman John Tanner, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)]
On first glance, the publicity over Fahrenheit 9/11 gives the impression that the local multiplex is about to be deluged by a flood of pre-election political manifestos -- which may well be the case. But considering the current historical moment, the slate of political films is still missing one crucial, if ironic, element: fiction.
The U.S. is engaged in two major foreign wars, one of which has disintegrated into a full quagmire; U.S. foreign policy, formerly expansionist and covert, now expansionist and bumbling, has enflamed anti-American passions worldwide; GIs are coming home in body bags; and the President is engulfed by scandals surrounding CIA reports, leaks of agents' names and crony deals to Halliburton. In a similar moment in the mid-1970s, American theaters were filled with dark, political and anti-establishment narratives. By contrast, Hollywood's fictional fare in 2004 is mostly distraction and fluff. Several projects are bucking the trend, however, and though they're all in the historically un-sexy documentary genre, that genre itself is undergoing a renaissance.
Michael Moore's latest offering is grabbing headlines for the moment, but coming up quietly behind him are other, lower profile offerings. Among these are the John Kerry biopic Tour Of Duty; Silver City, John Sayles' fictional account of an ultra-conservative political dynasty; The Hunting of the President, which investigates the impeachment of Bill Clinton; You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a profile of historian and peace activist Howard Zinn; and Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. Uncovered, which doesn't open in theaters until August, has already sold an astonishing 100,000 copies online.
Premiering at the Human Rights Film Festival is the anti-capitalist screed The Corporation and Persons Of Interest -- a hard-hitting look at the post 9/11 round-up of over 5,000 Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim men (of whom, only three men were ultimately charged, and two of those were acquitted). From the entertainment end of the spectrum comes a major studio release, The Yes Men, which follows the antics of a rabble-rousing crew of political performance artists who manage to crash WTO meetings disguised as entrepreneurs. In one scene they demonstrate an indispensible contraption for the modern CEO -- an outfit that includes a monitor for his/her overseas sweatshops.
Entering its second month in New York theaters is the searing Control Room, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim (co-director of another fly-on-the-wall masterpiece Startup.Com). Tracking the Al Jazeera TV network through the first phase of the Iraq invasion, the film provides a masterful dissection of modern media's role in fomenting jingoism, hiding casualties, and falling into obedient sycophancy. The action takes place in the U.S.-military-manned CentCom (Central Command), where information is disseminated on the war's progress. The Al Jazeera correspondents' suspicion and cynicism stand in marked contrast with their Western colleague's docile head-nodding. When an Al Jazeera correspondent is killed by US fire, in an incident perceived in the Muslim world as reprisal for showing footage of captured American GIs, all the reporters in CentCom are united in grief and anger. But when the cameras start rolling, CNN correspondent Tom Mintier's questions seem oddly restrained -- tacitly acknowledging an invisible line that can't be crossed.
Control Room's singular achievement is in bringing out the invisible voices of the Muslim world. Veteran Al Jazeera journalists Hassan Ibrahim and Samir Khader give voice to the widening gulf that separates American self-perception from the rest of the world's views. As Americans roll into Baghdad, US television broadcasts images of the stars and stripes being draped over Saddam's statue (a PR miscalculation that was later reversed). Meanwhile, Al Jazeera broadcasts images of an angry Iraqi man shouting at the camera, "America, You lose! You lose the war." Staring at the latter image, Hassan wryly notes, "And these are the Shias who are 'receiving the Americans with flowers.'" At another point in the film, frustrated by an endless barrage from US media, Hassan says, "You are the most powerful nation on earth, I agree. You can defeat everyone, I agree. But don't ask us to love it as well!"
Control Room also achieves a remarkable feat of balance by including Lt. Josh Rushing, CentCom's press officer, as a principal character. As the war progresses, we see Rushing struggling to wrap his mind around the realities of the war. Although critical of Al Jazeera, he finally admits, "Just like Fox plays to American patriotism, it benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism." On the night of Al Jazeera's controversial broadcast of footage of dead GIs, Rushing says that the footage had made him "sick." But in the same moment, he also admits that similarly grisly scenes of dead Iraqis had not bothered him. Moments like this highlight the urgency of showing Control Room to as wide an audience as possible. When the film was first on the festival circuit, director Noujaim was warned that only Canadian companies might pick it up. But as she acknowledged happily in a recent interview, "People are hungry right now for this kind of information, hungry to understand what the other side is feeling and thinking about."
Will films like Control Room, Persons Of Interest, Tour Of Duty, Silver City, and The Yes Men make a discernible impact on the November elections? It largely depends on whether their distribution is national, or limited to the usual liberal/progressive enclaves of the East and West Coast -- leaving the "flyover states" without an alternative perspective. At the New York screening of Control Room which I attended, the audience hissed when Rumsfeld appeared on screen. Those moments reminded me that I was sitting with an audience of the converted. It's critical that these films are made available to heartland and swing state audiences as well. The film that has the best potential for such wide distribution is, of course, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- not only because of the publicity garnered by the Palme D'Or win and the dustup with Eisner, but because of Moore's particular style as a filmmaker. The same penchant for flagrant stunts and connect-the-dots story-telling which alienates urban elites (who dismiss him as "self-promotional"), endears him to middle America. Both in books like Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country?, and in his films, such as Bowling For Columbine (the most successful documentary in US history), Moore has strategically gone after the hearts of the heartland.
When Michael Moore ambushes Congressmen and urges them to enlist their children to fight in Iraq, when he rents a truck and circles Capitol Hill reading out portions of the Patriot Act (to underscore the fact that none of the Congressmen read the Act before passing it), these are moments that will resonate with the silent majority. If polls are to be believed, Americans are still divided (though the balance shifts every day) over whether war in Iraq was "worthwhile." But when Moore highlights the fact that Black, Latino and working-class Whites are the cannon fodder, while the ruling elite gets wealthy on war reconstruction, he has found a resonant argument that will appeal to the widest majority and has the best chance of swaying the November elections.
Although there is reason to cheer the arrival of these documentaries, it is worth noting that the present moment of national crisis has not inspired major fictional offerings from mainstream studios. Although activists wishfully point to The Day After Tomorrow, global warming merely serves as an excuse to fulfill the director's masturbatory fantasies of knocking down New York landmarks (again!). Otherwise, the only recent Hollywood offerings about American military misadventures were Tears of the Sun and Black Hawk Down, both of which depicted evangelical and heroic US military intervention. In a similar moment in the 1970s, Vietnam, Kent State, Attica, and the Watergate scandal inspired a dark anti-establishment and anti-war mood at movie theaters. This found expression in films as diverse as All the President's Men (Watergate), The Conversation (Phone-tapping), Network (corrupt media), Deer Hunter (suicidal Vietnam vets), Serpico (corrupt cops), Three Days Of The Condor (corrupt CIA), Apocalypse Now (trigger-happy lunatics in Vietnam), and Coming Home (crippled vet).
By contrast, the only major Hollywood release this year that has a "political premise" is the Jonathan Demme remake of Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel Washington replacing Frank Sinatra, read into that what you will!) But although movie buffs are buzzing about the film's brainwashed Gulf War vet (with parallels to the recent killing spree of Gulf War vet John Allen Mohammed), the film has a wishy-washy "Manchuria Corporation" in charge of the brainwashing. Unless there are direct parallels to Halliburton (which the trailer did not reveal), this film is unlikely to throw any mud towards the Bush White House. Come to think of it, the original classic was no progressive fable -- with cackling Chinese doctors, it fed directly into Cold War paranoia about "scheming Reds" and sleepers.
A more direct and relevant political message was hidden inside two Hollywood blockbusters -- ironically, these were completed before Bush junior took office. These two films were Three Kings (1999) and The Siege (1998). In Three Kings, director David O. Russell offered a stinging rebuke of the first Gulf War, candy-coated by the presence of three major stars (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube). Unlike films like Bulworth which telegraphed their political message loudly (and consequently ran afoul of Rupert Murdoch), Three Kings arrived bearing the innocuous tagline of "adventurers recovering stolen gold." But once the action-loving audience had been ensnared, Russell clobbered them with Clooney's speech about Bush I deserting the Kurds after Kuwait's "liberation": "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They don't. Now they're getting slaughtered." Towards the end of the film, an Iraqi officer's torture of Wahlberg also deftly highlighted the double standards regarding American violence against others.
Although Three Kings dissected the Gulf War post-fact, Edward Zwick's The Siege was eerily prescient about post-9/11 hysteria. When reports first came out that Zwick was filming a thriller about Arab terrorists, Muslim groups furiously protested. Whether influenced by these protests, or sticking to his original plan, Zwick eventually emerged with a film that predicted a nightmarish scenario of a rollback of civil rights after terrorist attacks, illegal kidnappings by the US government and CIA blowback. In scenes that now appear prophetic, thousands of Muslim men are rounded up into concentration camps, and entire Arab neighborhoods empty out. In the penultimate confrontation, Denzel Washington's FBI agent confronts Bruce Willis' power-mad general, who is torturing an Arab suspect to death.
General Devereaux (Willis): The time has come for one man to suffer in order to save hundreds of lives.
Agent Hubbard (Washington): One Man? What about two? What about six? How about public executions, huh? ... What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and -- and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they've won. They've already won!
Although Zwick succumbed to the temptation of making the Palestinian character Sami Bouajila the villain, he made him a CIA agent gone bad (with obvious parallels to Bin Laden!), and gave him one of the film's most truthful lines:
CIA Agent Bridger (Sami's CIA handler): They maim, they kill. Do they represent the Palestine you want to build? They are using you!
Sami: You are using me too! Everyone uses the Palestinians!
Finally, nothing can be a better coda to George Tenet's brilliant career than Agent Bridger's rueful exclamation: "We're the CIA, something always goes wrong."
Both Three Kings and The Siege used a splashy, special-effects laden blockbuster to convey a political message. By choosing this vehicle, they may have reached many more people than most serious documentaries could -- or, at least, more of the undecided voters in flyover country. By 2004, the Iraq War, Patriot Act, CAPPS II, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib have provoked a domestic and global crisis. But Hollywood has yet to produce any mainstream films that are critical of the current conflagration. For now, that burden is fully on documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, The Yes Men, and Persons Of Interest. Let's all make sure these films do good business and prove that there is a market for truth-telling -- both unvarnished and flamboyant.
Two months ago, Howard Dean was the man to beat for the Democratic nomination. Then his campaign fell over a cliff, limping in as a distant second, third and even fourth, in the primaries. On Wednesday Dean officially ended his bid for the White House, telling supporters, "I am no longer actively purusing the presidency."
What happened? How could Dean's insurgent candidacy, which had energized and excited voters in every state, come to such a screeching halt?
The pundits claim Dean's "rage" undid him, that voters took a "second look," etc. etc. Nonsense really. The answer is much simpler. Howard Dean was assassinated in broad daylight. Unlike Kennedy's "grassy knoll," Dean's killers are not hiding -- it was the Democratic Party itself, and more specifically the Democratic Leadership Council, that successfully went after, and sabotaged his candidacy.
Remember the 1980s, when the Democratic Party found itself facing unassailable Ronald Reagan, "It's morning in America" slogans and an era of go-go optimism? In three successive elections, the Democrats were felled by the memory of Jimmy Carter. Dems were seen as soft on the Soviets, mullahs, crime and welfare mothers. Although Carter's gentle ways secured the historic Camp David Egypt-Israel accord, most Americans remembered the Iranian hostages, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the infamous "malaise" speech.
In 1988, Dukakis went down to Bush I because Republicans successfully painted him with the "L" word -- "too liberal". Faced with a 12-year losing streak, a new generation of party activists took control of the party. Led by Bill Clinton and others, they formed the DLC -- a powerful group with the explicit intention of moving the Democrats away from the left to the center, from where they would beat the Republicans. Bill Clinton was the DLC's first candidate, and his eight-year run solidified its hold on the party. Clinton's Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was another DLC heavyweight, and until he was killed in a plane crash, instrumental in moving the party away from "liberal" positions.
Nothing succeeds like success. Buoyed by Clinton's popularity, a balanced budget and an era of prosperity, the DLC became the standard-bearer for the Democrats' political identity. That is until 2000, when the DLC's next king-apparent, Al Gore, took a stumble in the Florida panhandle and was then hog-tied by the Supreme Court. When the dust had settled and King George was safely inside the palace, a recount revealed that Gore had actually won, but the damage was done. The DLC's critics now came out of hiding -- attacking the party for being too centrist, too cautious and too much like "Republican-lite." If you try to ape the right-wing of the nation, voters may decide to go for the "real thing"!
Howard Dean emerged within this specific context. From day one, he positioned himself as a reformer of the Democratic party -- the man who would bring the party back to its liberal roots. Dean hit headlines by being the anti-war candidate. But even within that position, most of his criticism was of his Democratic cohorts, for cravenly accepting the Iraq war. Dean took pleasure in flaying candidates like Kerry for voting in support of the war resolution. The party took notice when Dean got up on stage and announced, "I'm Howard Dean, and I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!"
Another part of the Dean story, and threat to the party establishment, was his style and appeal. Howard Dean has often been labeled the "prophet of rage." It's certainly true that he was an angry man -- angry at Bush, the war, the budget deficit, the mushrooming unemployment cloud, at all things that had gone badly wrong in three short years. This anger hit a chord with the popular imagination; dissatisfaction with Bush was high and Dean was the perfect protest candidate.
Another core part of Dean's appeal was his overwhelming support among young people. In 2000, one of the lowest voter turnouts was among young people. If you were under 24, you tuned out and stayed home in November. By contrast, the bulk of Howard Dean's support was among the youth of America. Energized by a strategy focused on Internet campaigning, "Generation Dean" or "Dean 2.0" spread across college campuses and gave a youthful aura to the man from Vermont.
Of course, the DLC did not take kindly to this direct challenge. The crucial dynamic in America today is that big companies, political parties and media are powerful businesses -- and they will do anything to crush new threats. The DLC reacted with fury to the Dean candidacy, going all out to torpedo his momentum. Although Democratic nominees soon piled on the "bash-Dean" bandwagon, earlier attacks were carried out by DLC operatives. There was even the smell of scandal when two top Democratic candidates were found sharing information about Dean in an attempt to slow him down.
This is where Dean lost a crucial ally -- the mainstream media also joined in on the anti-Dean feeding frenzy. In his early days, he had flayed big media for caving in to George Bush on Iraq, and media giants never forgave him for this. In the same week, Time and Newsweek ran "Who is the Real Howard Dean?" stories. One cover showed a face covered in dark shadows, another showed an incomplete jigsaw puzzle! Semioticians take note -- bad guys in westerns always have their faces obscured in shadows!
In the end, Dean threatened a troika of powerful institutions. He was a threat to the political parties (because he attacked Democrats' centrist drift), to media (because he criticized their cowardly reporting) and to big business (because he would roll back chummy tax-benefits for corporations). All three institutions responded with venom and destroyed Dean's candidacy. In 1968, a bullet ended Robert Kennedy's anti-establishment candidacy. In 2004, the methods used were more subtle, but just as effective.
America is riven by a strange schizophrenia. It is an entrepreneurial nation that prizes individuality and celebrates non-conformists. Especially in the area of business, mavericks like Ted Turner and George Soros have been able to define their own space. But in the area of politics, the establishment guards the doors zealously -- outsiders have no chance. In 1976 an unknown peanut farmer from Georgia came out of nowhere to capture the White House. Jimmy Carter was the anti-Nixon, his mantra was, "Trust me, I will never lie to you!" But insurgency candidates like Carter don't appear too often. People like Bernie Sanders have to run on Socialist tickets. Other voters are deserting the Democrats for the Green Party and Working Families Party, scoring small, incremental victories in local council elections across the nation.
Coming back to the 2004 elections, barring any surprises, John Kerry will get the nomination. If GIs keep dying in Iraq, if job losses continue, if popular anger over right-wing policies grow, Kerry has a shot. I'm part of the ABBA (Anyone But Bush Again) brigade. If Bush goes down to Kerry, I'll be the first to celebrate. But the Democratic Party is still waiting for a candidate who will help rediscover its soul.
Naeem Mohaiemen is the editor of Shobak.org.
On my visits home to Bangladesh from New York, I catch up on my movie-watching -- exploring the local market of pirated films. Clone DVDs are increasingly sophisticated, with sleek, realistic packaging. One Dhaka friend tells me, "I look up movies on Amazon.com and then I go buy them at Rifles Square market."
However, this sophistication does not extend to the closed-caption subtitles. Since the clones are illegal dubs of promotional copies, there are no subtitles to copy. This gap has been filled by enterprising Asian cloners who have started inserting their own subtitles. One Chinese outfit hires university graduates to watch the films and type in subtitles. These efforts have often resulted in hilarious and unintentionally subversive results. The Sean Connery blockbuster The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) provides a case in point.
The errors in subtitles start off as banal mistakes. A drunken sot's remark to a visitor: "And I suppose you're another traveler, got it in your head to sample the dark continent" becomes the reverse: "And I suppose you aren't a traveler. Got it into your head to stuff from the dark continent." Dire predictions of an unstable world: "Baying for blood, it's a powder keg." changes to: "Being for blood, it's a powder cake." The Invisible Man's jest: "I'm feeling a bit of draft in my nether regions" becomes: "I'm feeling a bit of drafted another agents." Individual phrases also provide a challenge: "Thief" changes to "faith," "boon" to "bone," "sick note" to "sick knot," "as patriotic" to "the speech" and "prerogative" to "perlocutive."
Some sense can still be made of the subtitles, until utterly nonsensical constructions start to appear: "There is great unrest, countries set at each other's throats" mutates to: "That's glad on rest, countries set each other throat." "These attacks have every nation clamoring for the very weapons that assail them" changes to: "And he attached every nations claiming very weapons to the sierra." Sean Connery's guttural growl after a fight: "Wasn't there another one of these buggers?" becomes: "You guys sent another this baggage?" Strangest of all, Quatermain's boast: "I don't know whether to regale with how I found King Solomon's mines," becomes: "I know how to regret you with how I found to kick soloman's mind." Of course, "kick" might actually be appropriate, given the racism in old adventure tales.
Sometimes, the Asian subtitle creators look at the action and make a judgment call about what the word may have been. Cultural references are invariably botched in this process. Sean Connery demands his gun by yelling, "Bruce, Matilda!" Here, Matilda is the name of his gun -- but this makes no sense to the subtitle-maker, so he changes it to: "Bruce, wait for my order." When Connery is congratulated for making good time to London, he grumbles: "Not as good as Phineas Fogg." This Around the World in 80 Days reference goes over the transcribers' head, who deduces it must be a reference to the awful English weather we see on-screen. The subtitle then appears: "Not as good as full as fog."
Captain Nemo's assistant is a Moby Dick character who says: "Call me Ishmael." Baffled by this, the subtitle-writer craftily notes the color of the speaker (he's white), and substitutes the phrase "Tommy Ishmael." During a shootout, Connery yells: "Automatic rifles! Who in God's name has automatic rifles?" His companion replies: "That's unsporting, probably Belgium." This mutates into: "That's unspotting, how embarrassing."
To give readers a taste of the total viewing experience, I include below a portion of dialogue. The erroneous subtitle appears under each line. In this scene, Allan Quatermain (Connery) is crossing swords with Mina Harker, in a replay of the battle of sexes.
Quatermain: Mrs Harker, I doubt if you measure danger, the way I do!
Subtitle: Mrs. Hacker, I doubt if you measure of danger, the way I do?
Mina: And I imagine you were quite the librarian, Mr. Quatermain...
Subtitle: And I imagine was quite equilibrium, Mr. Quatermain
Mina: All those books you must have read just by looking at the covers
Subtitle: The books you must have read me by looking at the covers
Quatermain: I've had women along on past exploits...
Subtitle: I had women along in past days
Quatermain And found them to be, at best... a distraction
Subtitle: And found them to be the best... of a distraction
Mina: Do I distract you?
Quatermain: My dear girl, I've buried two wives, and many lovers...
Subtitle: A day ago, I married 2 wifes and many of them...
Quatermain: And I'm in no mood for any more of either
Subtitle: And I have no mood for more of idle
For the semioticians, there are layers of double meaning that can be read into the errors. Some errors may be deliberate, thrown in as sly double-entendre and commentary. The vampire Mina Harker is asked if her husband is sick and she replies, "Sick would be a mild understatement," which promptly appears on screen as "Sick would be mild and stagnant."
When a campy, overdressed Naseeruddin Shah first appears (as Nemo), Sean Connery gruffly says, "Rumor has it that you're a pirate." The subtitle changes this to "When we had the joke of Pirates." Finally, a visitor's announcement, "I'm a representative of Her Majesty's British Government" is promptly changed to "I'm the representative of His Majesty of the British Government." Here, the DVD-copier is defiantly changing genders of Queen Victoria's fiercely matriarchal rule.
Watching this film was truly an extraordinary experience! Researchers should experiment with other pirated DVDs, finding faulty subtitle executions that might provide similar "meta" experiences.
Naeem Mohaiemen is the editor of Shobak.org.
Two years ago, I lost my credit card on a trip. Dialing the American Express 800 number, I asked the polite customer rep to read the list of recent charges. As she went through each charge, I noticed something familiar about the way she said words like "Duane Reade" and "Blockbuster."
"Excuse me," I interrupted. "Where are you?"
"Oh, we're the American Express Call Center in Bangalore, India," she replied.
Over the coming months, I started noticing this phenomenon more often. When I called AOL trying to cancel my account for the fifth time, the helpful woman giving instructions was in India. Palm Pilot's "Level 1" help desk seemed to be in America, but when they were stymied and bumped me to "Level 2," an unmistakably Indian voice came on. Recently, I even started getting sales calls hawking credit cards from India.
A few months back, a new pattern began to emerge. Suddenly, the customer service reps weren't eager to divulge where they were from. "Oh, we're not allowed to disclose location," said one nervous voice. It was very cloak and dagger. Maybe it's some new security measure, I thought to myself.
Then the New York Times article, titled "We're From Bangalore (But We're Not Allowed To Tell You)" revealed all. Indian call centers now had to acquire American accents and generic Anglo names, displaying a new-found nervousness in the face of an incipient backlash: Dell was closing its Indian call center in the face of protests; New Jersey was trying to pass a bill blocking outsourcing to India; and an angry Indiana politician huffed, "I represent Indiana, not India!"
All Roads Lead to India
India is at the red-hot center of the Outsourcing Revolution. Thirty percent of all new Information Technology (IT) work for U.S. companies is now done abroad, mostly in India. McKinsey Consulting estimated that three countries received $20 billion in outsourcing revenue from the U.S. in 2002: Ireland ($8.3 billion), India ($7.7 billion) and Canada ($3.7 billion). Analysts forecast that by 2008 Indian IT services and back-office support will grow to a $57 billion a year industry with four million workers.
International multinationals have had offices in India for almost a decade, and they include Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Intel, IBM, Cisco, Motorola, HP, Oracle, Yahoo, Ernst & Young, HSBC, and, of course, the trailblazer in "discovering" India, Microsoft. But Indian offices whose main business is outsourced work from the U.S. are a relatively new phenomenon. Recent high profile firms include MphasiS, which processed tax returns of 20,000 Americans this year (analysts predict that 200,000 U.S. tax returns will be processed in India next year). Then there is OfficeTiger, which employs 1,200 people to do research and analysis for eight Wall Street firms. Finally, GE Capital's four Indian centers design statistical models, prepare data for GE annual reports, write software, and process $35 billion of global invoices
India dominates outsourced IT, accounting and financial services. Ambitious firms have now expanded to food-stamp paperwork, auto engineering, drug research, airline industry and work for the U.S. Postal Service. India has two key strengths: hundreds of thousands of technology graduates each year and the use of English at all stages of education. Armed with this combination, India's potential is huge as knowledge-based service work expands. China dominates in manufacturing, which is only 14 percent of the U.S. economy. By contrast, the service industry, where India has laid its stake, makes up 60 percent of the U.S. economy.
White Collar Labor Wars
Of course U.S. firms are not outsourcing work out of benevolent desire to help Indian workers. These new moves come in an ever-expanding desire to cut costs and increase profit margins. The stage is set for a struggle between western and Asian white-collar labor. Just as the success of H-1B visa workers during the Internet boom led to an anti-immigrant backlash, the outsourcing revolution faces its own pushback.
Critics argue that every time a project is outsourced, jobs are lost in the United States. Estimates vary from a projected loss of 600,000 jobs by 2005 (Forrester Research) to 2 million by 2008 (Deloitte). But it is also impossible to calculate how much of these job losses are also an effect of the overall recession.
As anger builds over claims of lost jobs, American unions have emerged as aggressive opponents of outsourcing, and their rhetoric often displays thinly disguised xenophobia. Even inside the U.S., unions create their own hegemonies, often leaving immigrant-dominated industries out in the cold. When it comes to a globalized labor market, "workers of the world unite" is not their motto. TechsUnite.org (CA), Alliance of Technology Workers (WA) and Rescue American Jobs have all been pushing politicians to pass "Buy American" legislation to limit federal agencies from sending jobs overseas. In New Jersey and Indiana, bills to outlaw shifting state jobs overseas were narrowly defeated. Maryland, Michigan and North Carolina are planning similar legal battles in the future. Incessant complaints about "bad service" and "strange accents" forced Dell Computers to shut down one of its call centers in India, representing a major victory for the "America First" lobby.
A Dilemma for the Left
The traditional left has been caught off-guard by the outsourcing debate. It is very hard to make the argument that Indians are being exploited. Studies show that jobs in outsourcing firms are some of the most highly sought-after, and often pay much more than jobs servicing the local economy. There is still a knee-jerk reaction among Indians, reflected in editorials that deride these workers as "cyber-coolies."
But does that jargon apply everywhere? As hordes of freshly minted IIT graduates put on their starched white shirts, or crisp salwar-kameez, and march into brand-new "cyberpark" offices in Bangalore, are they really anybody's "coolies?"
Not everyone accepts the unions' arguments. In England, George Monbiot in the Guardian applauded the irony of the new power structure: "Britain's empire is striking back. Former colonies have found a silver lining in the bitter legacy of conquest: English, the language of former masters, is a competitive advantage in the global economy." After Norwich Union sent one of their centers overseas, a spirited debate erupted on the BBC website. From London, Theresa Law wrote, "Give me an intelligent, well-educated, polite Indian on the end of a telephone handling my customer queries, over an ignorant, rude, unhelpful and unwilling British call handler any day!" In reply to numerous e-mails about "stolen jobs," Henry wrote, "What a breathtaking display of economic illiteracy and downright racism. Why shouldn't people in India have a crack at earning a decent living if they can do it more effectively than can be done in the UK?"
Outsourcing is an incredibly complex economic and ethical issue, with winners and losers on both sides. Yes, why shouldn't Indians (and by extension, my native Bangladesh) have a chance to improve their living standards through hard work? On the other hand, as thousands of jobs are lost in the West during the present recession, much of the blame will fall on outsourcing. But free trade means the flow goes both ways. If the West demands open access to global markets for its exports, doesn't the Third World have the right to demand free access to labor markets?
Finally, the unions need to make the connection between outlandish CEO salaries and lost jobs. Outsourcing is not the only reason for all worker woes. To take one recent example, if Boeing were to ever open a factory in India, many would scream about "lost jobs." But aren't far more jobs going to be lost to cover the damage from the Pentagon contract kickback scandal, which has already led to the resignation of Boeing's CEO?
The Human Face of a Global Economy?
In this ongoing debate, a startling new entry is a multimedia theater piece "Alladeen," now touring the U.S. after a successful run in England. Produced by England's Motiroti and multimedia wizards Builders Association, the play is an antidote to media stories about faceless Indians taking jobs away.
Call centers are the Ground Zero of the outsourcing debate. Because western customers have to interact directly with an operator in India, all of the coded racism, and anxieties come boiling to the surface. In previous recessions, similar misdirected hostilities targeted H-1B visas, green card holders and other shades of new immigrants. But because the targets were inside the country and able to lobby for their own rights, demonizing was not easy (witness the death of California's Prop. 187).
In this new battle, the targets are in a distant high-tech call center -- which makes it much easier to scapegoat and destroy. There is a subtle interplay of racism in this whole debate. Would outsourcing be a political hot potato if the jobs were going to Norway, Israel or Portugal? In fact, no one complains about job loss to Ireland, even though it is the global leader in outsourcing.
"Alladeen" tackles this issue head-on. Through a combination of actors, simultaneous video displays, computer screens and taped video footage from a real-life Indian call center, the play breaks through the clutter of economic and ideological debates. Finally, the anonymous Indian at the far-away call center is given a voice, a name and a life. We see what is created, and also what is lost.
Alternating skillfully between documentary footage and re-enactments, "Alladeen" takes the audience through the life cycle of a call center. We start with the training sessions, where eager Indian graduates are told to neutralize "mother tongue influence." A white supervisor explains that Indians always say "w" for "v" and then patronizingly adds to one candidate, "There's no extra marks for going fast. I'm not going to give you a chocolate bar." Just as Indians rote-memorize scientific facts in high school, these trainees memorize city names, to "switch on and off" American accents and learn cultural facts ("potatoes are important in Montana"). Overhead projectors are used to explore football ("the pork skin"), baseball ("a model of sacrifice") and TV shows that tap into the zeitgeist of a city ("Ally McBeal" for Chicago, 'Buffy' for California and 'Friends' for New York).
Later, each freshly minted trainee will channel their favorite "Friends" character. But are they creating an illusion for the caller, or living in a dream world of their own? One where they live on "Central Perk West?" In this phase of cultural globalization, "being American" is a job requirement -- even if some "real" Americans want nothing to do with you.
As the trainees become more confident, they deal with stoned callers, buck-naked pranksters and suspicious matrons. Internet websites flash trivia about the callers' hometown, and eagle-eyed supervisors monitor every call -- all is perfectly calibrated to give the caller the impression they are dialing their neighborhood call center, and talking to a cheerful Phoebe, Monica or Chandler.
But all contradictions are laid bare when "Phoebe" receives a call from an Indian-American from Redwood City. Even though she recognizes a fellow Indian, protocol demands that she lie and say "I'm in New York City." Discovering that the man is a software engineer, Phoebe tries to ask him about life in America.
Disguised half-questions are blurted out in the tiny window of opportunity before the call ends. Finally, desperately trying to semaphore her own situation, Phoebe blurts out, "But is it easy there? I mean what if you were Indian?"
"My dear!" comes the puzzled reply, "I am Indian!"
Alladeen's most poignant moments are in two real-life documentary clips. In one segment, the Bangalore call center operators are asked, if they had one wish, what would it be. The answers come rushing out: To be "handsome," "rich," "five inches taller," "married." But one exhausted operator, who talks earlier about the grind of the midnight shift, can only look at the camera and say, "I wish this were a nine-six shift!"
In the other segment, an operator named Aarthi Angelo talks about the endless quest to hide Indian accents: "People are so sensitive to accents. Especially after the World Trade Center incident, people started asking me, are you Muslim? You know, we've been taught to transcend barriers of caste and religion. But here we had to answer that question." Then after a pause, she adds, "Even Muslims had to say, no we're not Muslims!"
Outsourcing will continue to be debated at union meetings, political rallies, Senate chambers, Fortune 500 seminars and journal pages. Yet, Alladeen succeeds in painting a picture that is often missing from this debate over globalization. The show puts a human face on a complex economic system, highlighting both the gain and loss for each human player.
The last word goes to Simon, another visitor to the BBC website: "What we are seeing is capitalism working in a totally uneven playing field and it will carry on until the playing field is evened out. That is going to be a long and painful process and the world simply isn't going to be able to support its entire population at the standard of living we would like to continue to enjoy."
Naeem Mohaiemen is a historian, media activist, and the editor of Shobak, a magazine devoted to South Asian issues. Additional research for this article was provided by Udayan Chattyopadhyay.